Barton Fink

Theatrical Release Poster
1991
Joel & Ethan Coen

7/10 (has no meaning on purpose)

I have mixed feelings on this one. It has the same charm of almost all of the Coen´s movies, an appeal that I believe stems from their precise attention to visual detail. John Turturro, John Goodman, and Tony Shalhoub (the surprise scene-stealer) give perhaps the best performances of their careers. It also has the same cartoonish characters that are essential to the Coen’s success (Buscemi´s Chet, the Faulkner-inspired WP Mayhew, Capitol head Lipnick), always providing chuckles if not outright laughter.

That said, I found myself bored through the majority of the film. Turturro´s writer’s-blocked character is so arrogant and obnoxious through the first half of the film that you have trouble caring what happens to him. And by the time the insane finale rolls around (about the time the dead body shows up in his bed), you’re just wondering what the hell is going on. There are symbols galore throughout the film: the photo on his wall, the mosquito, the wallpaper, the box at the end. And with all of them you wonder what they mean. And like most Coen films, the questions never gets answered. Looking for answers, I stumbled upon the following quote from the wikipedia site, which has a ridiculously (read “undeservedly”) long entry for the film:

The Coens, however, have denied any intent to create a systematic unity from symbols in the film. “We never, ever go into our films with anything like that in mind,” Joel said in a 1998 interview. “There’s never anything approaching that kind of specific intellectual breakdown. It’s always a bunch of instinctive things that feel right, for whatever reason.”[59] The Coens have noted their comfort with unresolved ambiguity. Ethan said in 1991: “Barton Fink does end up telling you what’s going on to the extent that it’s important to know … What isn’t crystal clear isn’t intended to become crystal clear, and it’s fine to leave it at that.”

For anyone who has read my “Miller´s Crossing” review (written two days before I saw “Barton Fink” by the way), can I please get a prize for having my suspicion proven right? I could spend minutes, hours, or days thinking about what this movie meant, and you can check for yourself that many critics have done this. I’d probably come up with something like: Barton was in hell and had to come to terms with his own arrogant pride before he could escape, or maybe that he was experiencing the hell of writer´s block and had to fight his way through it. Or maybe it was all a dream. But the point is: why should I spend that time thinking about it when the Coens themselves do not even know what it’s about, or even care? They essentially admitted that they have no idea what the box or the mosquito (or even the ending!) mean. They liked the picture on the wall, not because it symbolized the Heaven that Fink was striving for, but because it offered a nice visual touchstone for the room.

I recognize that there is a value in creating ambiguous works of art, and that leaving things open to interpretation can often be the most artistically virtuous thing to do. But it is a fine line that separates artistic integrity from pretentious laziness, and the Coens wander perilously close in this film, if not crossing it altogether. I am glad to have seen “Fink” if for nothing more than being able to confirm my suspicion that I wasn’t missing something when I leave their films confused. Well, I guess I was missing something, but everyone was missing it, because it wasn’t there. It didn’t exist. So this will be the movie that officially broke me of my Coen-worship. They have created some masterpieces (“Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo”), but the majority of their films are not much more than curiosities. Agreeable to watch, with charming moments, but ultimately collapsing under the weight of all of their symbols, references and metaphors, for lack of a cohesive base to unite them.

18 March 2010

Other Reviews for “Barton”

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